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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

'Eat' Extra: James Syhabout of Commis Talks Technique

Posted By on Wed, Feb 17, 2010 at 11:44 AM

click to enlarge James Syhabout. - STAR5112/FLICKR
James Syhabout, chef of Commis, which I review today, has done time in the kitchens of restaurants that foodistas place high on their bucket list: The Fat Duck and El Bulli in Europe, Coi and Manresa in the Bay Area. Yet it's the smaller restaurants he says that he wanted to replicate for his own place in Oakland. "I think of my time in Europe, where there are a lot of small places with a neighborhood feel that are doing haute cuisine. I like cooking haute cuisine, but I don't like the over-the-top service, the glamour, the glitz, the pretense that people usually identify it with."

And he doesn't like the term molecular gastronomy, either ― the label usually applied to restaurants (like El Bulli, Coi, and the Fat Duck) tweaking food into radical new forms through the use of new devices and interesting additives. I called Syhabout to ask him about the science behind his dishes. Turns out it's not all as tricky as I thought.

SFoodie: It seems like there's a lot of molecular-gastronomy technique that you slip into your food, but you don't make a big show of it.

Syhabout: Generally, I think the term "molecular gastronomy" is misinterpreted. It's just about understanding the molecular processes in cooking. Even in the simplest thing, like boiling water, is undergoing molecular changes.

it's just understanding what happens on a molecular level ― and then

you try to massage it a little. Sous vide, for example, is nothing "molecular." It's been done in hotels since the 1970s, and it's just resurfaced in a new identity. I can cook an egg to 62 degrees using an oven and a thermometer, but that's a lot of work ― why not buy the tools to do it much more easily?

Yeah, but these cooking techniques make possible a lot of textures that weren't common on tables before. Take the amuse-bouche you've been serving, with that slow-poached egg. How'd you get it to be so round and creamy? That's a staple amuse for us, and it's never going to change. It's fun, definitely nostalgic of granola with eggs and cream ― the presentation looks like a whole egg, with egg yolk set in the middle of the onion cream, which mimics an egg white. We poach the egg at a certain temperature range for a certain amount of time, and specific-sized eggs factor into it. Of a dozen eggs we cook at the same time, probably two of them crack.

Wait, you cook the eggs in the shell and then remove the white? Yes, we cook them in the shell. It's just understanding that eggs cook inside out. The yolk's going to go before the white, so you want to cook it until the whites coagulate but are still runny, then peel them off. It

took us two months to figure out, to the tenth of a degree, how to cook them the way we wanted to.

What about the foamy onion cream? People always ask if we put it through the siphon. Nope, it's a classic soubise ― just onions stewed with a little stock, vegetables, and cream, then pureed.

There was another dish I was intrigued with, the carrots baked in ashes. How'd you do that? That's a super-primitive method. We just take mesquite charcoal and vegetable scraps, ignite them like charcoal and let them burn down until they're white. When the ashes start, we bury the carrots in them and just let it go.

And how about those sodas you serve at the beginning? They have very

fine bubbles, and it seems like you've added something to them.

Yes, it's a hydrocolloid that's usually in bars. It's

all-natural acacia tree extract, or gum arabic. [Here the interviewer, expecting something extra fancy, interjects a half-disappointed "Oh."] It just helps emulsify

the liquid with oxygen. We put the soda in an old-fashioned soda siphon and

charge it with CO2. It's a lot simpler than people think.

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Jonathan Kauffman


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